Approaching Spiritual Death

Gary G. Kohls, MD

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Those were the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous speech on April 4, 1967, one year to the day of his1968 assassination in Memphis, TN. The people who heard that speech recognized it as one of the most powerful speeches ever given articulating the immorality of the Viet Nam War. Some also saw that King was signing his own death warrant by exposing so forcefully the perpetrators of what Thomas Merton accurately characterized as “the overwhelming atrocity that was Viet Nam.”

King was speaking out from his deeply felt sense of anguish and outrage at the horrible sufferings and deaths of millions of innocent Vietnamese civilians, mostly non-combatants. King knew that women and children were the main victims of a whole host of highly lethal US weapons, including one of the US Air Force’s favorites, napalm, which burned the flesh off of whatever part of the body that the flaming, jellied gasoline splashed on. King knew of the atrocities that our GIs were ordered to commit in the name of “anti-communism.” He saw the connections between the killing of dispensable “gooks” on the battlefields of Southeast Asia and the oppression, impoverishment, imprisoning and lynching of “dispensable blacks” in America.

King was being faithful to his commitment to the nonviolence teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth by speaking out against injustice wherever he saw it. He knew that the violence of racism, the violence of orchestrated poverty and the violence of militarism have the same sources: fear of “the other” and the willingness of the powerful elite to violently protect their own wealth and power from the poor and underprivileged from whom opportunity was denied or wealth was extracted.

King knew that the opposition to his nonviolence movement was formidable: from cruel Klan members and their sympathizers in the fascist south, to King’s conservative Southern “christian” clergy colleagues, to indifferent bystanders everywhere to J. Edgar Hoover’s racist FBI in the north. Those forces were dangerous enough, but by speaking out he was opposing an entrenched pro-war system with the capability for unleashing enormous violence against any and all perceived enemies, domestic or foreign.

Tremendous fortunes are made in every war, and the Viet Nam War was no exception. Weapons manufacturers thrived, becoming more deeply entrenched with every passing year. Huge expenditures were made for weapons research and development. Huge numbers of workers were hired in the weapons development and manufacture. And the economy boomed – but on borrowed money. And so the war was popular with investors, the elite, right-wing Christians, the Pentagon, the CIA, the politicians, the defense industries and the people who needed the work. But King’s anti-war stance threatened those group’s self-interests, and exactly one year later he was dead.

King’s April 4, 1967 speech at the Riverside Church in New York City was too truthful for the masters of war who had up to that time brain-washed the populace to believe that the Viet Nam War was just. And so at first they tried to silence him by a massive disinformation campaign, as has been done to idealistic and, therefore dangerous, progressive thinkers such as Jesus of Nazareth, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Paul Wellstone. The easily brain-washable public bought the lies, and support for King and his civil rights movement waned. The US Army, the FBI and various law enforcement officials led the campaign to discredit King and, on April 4, 1968 a hired assassin other than the framed James Earl Ray pulled the trigger that ended the life of another in a long string of liberal prophetic voices.

King was right about a lot of things, including his prophecy that America was losing its soul. Violence of all types is epidemic, especially the violence of poverty and racism. Gun violence, from homicide to suicide, is also epidemic. Those making obscene profits in the weapons industry have sabotaged even the most modest handgun and assault rifle controls – all the while flooding America and the world with increasingly lethal weapons. It may be too late now to stop the coming carnage.
Both the affluent and the poor have succumbed to the addictions of exploitive, corrupt capitalism – an economic system that has run so far amok that it may be about to crash. Entertainment, gambling, shopping, drugs (both legal and illegal), sports and religious addictions have overwhelmed the lives of many Americans who then have no time or energy left to tend to the soul.

The 1980s and 1990s, the American Decades of Greed I and II, were spent trying to attain wealth and power whatever the cost. Greed blows out the spark of the divine in all those who succumb to it, and the inevitable loss of compassion in both the winners and losers worsens the plight of the suffering billions of victims who live in the developing world - whose resources have been stolen from the, and are being stolen from them at this very moment.

At the end of his Viet Nam speech, King concluded: “War is not the answer. We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace and justice throughout the developing world – a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.”

“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons (and daughters) of God, and our brothers (and sisters) wait eagerly for our response.”

America, including its majority Christian leaders and followers (whether fundamentalist, conservative, moderate or liberal), has failed the vision of both Martin Luther King and Jesus of Nazareth. Our nation, and its churches, are on the brink of spiritual death. The hundreds of billions of tax dollars wasted annually for war and war preparation is money that is then unavailable for programs of social uplift, especially hunger relief, poverty reduction, affordable housing, education, medical care or meaningful, life-sustaining jobs. America may have sealed its doom when the pro-militarist administrations of LBJ and Nixon started incurring massive military deficits. And now, under the Cheney/Bush regime, the US debt has reached a crippling $9 trillion – for war-readiness and the shameful mass slaughter of innocent civilians, mostly women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wealthy financiers and investors are profiting handsomely from the carnage, making huge profits from loans that someone else will have to pay back.

America’s spiritual corpse is being hoisted up on top of the idolatrous altars of godless, soulless capitalism, compassionless militarism, excess luxury wealth, blind patriotism and the decidedly un-Christ-like God of War.

Is it too late for a resuscitation attempt on the hulk? Is there the political will to even try?

Gary G. Kohls, MD, Duluth, MN for Every Church A Peace Church ( <> )

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